Minnesota transportation agencies have moved open houses about construction projects online as COVID-19 restrictions have curtailed in-person meetings. And surprisingly, lots of people are watching.

More than 250 people viewed a self-guided online study the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) posted in April about long-term plans for the I-94/694/494 interchange in Woodbury and Oakdale.

In May, nearly 90 people tuned in to a live virtual meeting MnDOT held to explain this summer's resurfacing project and safety improvements on Hwy. 212 between Norwood Young America and Cologne in Carver County.

"That's more than we have previously had in that area," MnDOT spokeswoman Kirsten Klein said. "We are finding more people joining online meetings."

MnDOT must hold a meeting any time a project requires an environmental assessment, Klein said. The agency also will hold them in other cases, such as when there is a potential for big traffic disruptions. All of those meetings are online, at least for now.

Attendance at in-person meetings has varied. Hundreds turned out earlier this year in Hastings to learn about MnDOT's plan to reconstruct a segment of Hwy. 316 to the south and east of the city. More often attendance at in-person meetings is sparse, even when MnDOT mails thousands of postcards to advertise them, Klein said.

"Depending on the project, I might have one or two people come," said Klein, who hosts meetings for MnDOT in Dakota County.

It's not that people don't care, Klein said, but meetings are not always scheduled when people are able to be there in person. But they are able to watch online, she said. Viewership was high for a June 17 live meeting about this summer's work on Hwy. 7 in Victoria. Another is set for July 30.

The Hennepin County Transportation Department held its debut live virtual meeting May 20 to discuss three summer construction projects in the Lake Minnetonka area. About 30 people watched the midafternoon presentation.

Spokesman Colin Cox said in-person open houses allow stakeholders to talk directly with project leaders and engineers — but only if people are able to attend.

"That doesn't always work when you have a 4 to 6 [p.m.]-type meeting," he said.

Going online, Cox said, opens another avenue to connect with county residents. He said live online meetings allow viewers to submit questions to keep dialogue and feedback going. Another benefit is that meetings not normally recorded are now available on demand. Several people have viewed the May 20 meeting since it was posted to the county's YouTube page. Early indications show virtual meetings have been a success, he said.

"We're not fielding a lot of phone calls, so overall people have not felt uninformed about the [Lake Minnetonka] project," Cox said. He added, "We think online helps us to engage with people."

Both agencies in recent years have been putting more information online, including project descriptions, diagrams, surveys and videos to augment communication. But virtual meetings will not replace in-person meetings, both Klein and Cox said.

"Online helps us to engage with people the best we can," Klein said. As for in-person meetings, "I hold them to let people know what's happening outside their front door. It's still better to get out and talk to people."

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